Talking Birmingham, Beer and Starting from Nothing with Burning Soul Brewery
Chris Small and Rich Murphy are two childhood friends that opened a craft brewery. This is by no means a unique story. In fact, it’s almost a cliché.
Their journey from drinking beer to making it is also a familiar tale: discovering a love of beer through cask. For these friends it was finding Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in a pub on Broad Street, a street full of chain bars and nightclubs in their home town of Birmingham. From then on they began travelling to cask pubs with good reputations for their beer, and finding beers from the likes of Peterborough’s Oakham Ales and their take on hoppy, American styles.
Then there was Punk IPA. Bought from Tesco because, back when Chris was still a student, it was an easily affordable and accessible modern pale ale. This led to the pair getting well and truly bitten by the beer bug, and spending all their spare cash in legendary Birmingham bottle shop, Cotteridge Wines (and in turn this led to “countless” bottle shares with friends.)
Then the homebrewing began, while competitions were entered with aspirations of one day brewing commercially themselves—something they would achieve in 2016. What makes Burning Soul stand out within its hometown, however, is that when Chris and Rich opened the brewery, they were one of the first modern breweries in the city. For reasons that can be difficult to ascertain, Birmingham never quite saw the same kind of brewery boom that occurred in London, Manchester or Bristol over the past decade.
Now though, things feel like they’re in full swing. 2016 also saw the opening of fellow Birmingham breweries Glasshouse, Dig Brew Co. and Birmingham Brewery. Most important to Chris and Rich, however, is Fixed Wheel, a brewery based in Blackheath, who they see as Burning Soul’s big brother, of sorts.
While it may not have the most—unless you’re talking about the most underrated—breweries, this is beginning to change. We caught up with Chris and Rich from Burning Soul to find out why now is the perfect time to visit Birmingham and discover its evolving beer scene.
Nicci Peet: How did you go from homebrewing to starting a brewery?
Chris Small: So many years of talk.
Rich Murphy: From when we started homebrewing to five years later we were still talking about it, until we actually did it. We were going to various homebrew competitions and presenting beer to people who didn’t have any idea who we were and getting some good feedback from it. Then we started thinking we might actually be on to something!
NP: What was the point you went from talking about it to actually doing it? What made the change happen?
CS: Many years before we even got to this point, we bought equipment. It was in your nan’s garage for how many years?
RM: Probably like two years before we actually moved into our site. We’d already bought the big stainless, the ones that are now on the left, kind of shoved round the corner. We just picked them up and I told my nan that these are going to go in our brewery when we actually do it.
CS: I remember there was one night when we went back to your Nan’s house and we had a look at the kit and climbed into the mash tun. There was me, you and your brother all sitting inside, drinking beers going “one day we’re gonna be brewing in here.” Proper sad innit?
NP: How did you go from fermenters in your Nan’s garage to this?
RM: I guess there was a series of events that led up to it, but we just ended up in that place and we said, “we’re gonna do it now or we never will, so let’s go for it, lets try and get together as much money as we can together each and find a place.” Then we started looking around everywhere for a unit and turns out it’s very difficult to do that in Birmingham.
CS: There were a few places that were interested until you said that you were a brewery. They were like, “NO” and we were like, “oh, ok.”
RM: [Brewing] is probably more known now, but when we were looking there wasn’t a lot of people doing it here. There's one we called up and literally had people hanging up saying “a brewery? No!” and bang, phone down. Wouldn’t even talk to you about it because they’re thinking of it as some mad industrial sized scale.
NP: How did you come up with your name?
CS: The name was so fucking tough. It was always a brewery before we came up with the name.
RM: We were texting each other for weeks, just constantly back and forth trying to decide what was good and trying to put something together that said about how we feel about beer, doing it just for passion, just trying to make the best beer you can and what name represents that.
CS: There were so many crap ones. But Burning Soul, there have been times some people get it straight away and with some people it needs a bit of explanation. It’s meant to represent passion but it has no religious connotations at all. We didn’t even clock that until someone mentioned it. I was like, “oh no! Is that what people think?”
NP: How did you fund it? Did you tell me you sold your house?
CS: Yeah man, it was tough. I used to work for the NHS. The job was fine and I was pretty good at it. It was money and I had a little place in Edgbaston but I had quite a bit of debt and I didn’t really have any savings to make this work, so I sold close to everything. I sold the flat, all the furniture, everything that I had at the time. I had four things: a van, my clothes, my mobile and I had...I’m not sure what else, there was definitely a fourth thing...
NP: A brewery?
CS: Half of a brewery! It was pretty tough but I managed to get it together and don’t regret it. When we started the brewery I was still working full time at the NHS. We were not expecting to take any money for a long time, but then one Monday I had a bad morning and I was like you know what? Fuck this! And I handed in my notice.
NP: How about you Rich, did you work?
RM: I worked with my dad as builder and carpenter, which are skills that come in very handy at the brewery. I was doing that for 12 years and I ended up getting offered a job at another brewery for a bit. I quickly realised that you’re never gonna get creative working for someone else. I was only there for about 3 months but got massive hands on experience. Not just how to work a full scale kit but a bit about the company and running a business before we started.
Before I left I just took as much money out on credit cards as I could, because I happened to see some really good deals. I managed to get £20,000 by getting loads of cash deals off credit cards. That's how I funded it.
CS: World’s best credit history! Ridiculous. I applied for a credit card and they just laughed.
RM: It was fate that happened. I’ve never seen those deals before apart from then and they all just came at the right time.
NP: You seem to be doing alright now. You just bought two new fermenters didn’t you?
RM: This year is going to be the first proper year where it works out financially. The first year was agonising. You have to work every hour going knowing that you’re not going to earn a penny. Even though you’ve seen loads of money through the bar you’re never actually going to get to have any of it.
CS: You become numb to it.
RM: This year we’re actually picking up. We’re paying ourselves a monthly salary now.
NP: How do you think the beer scene has changed in Birmingham since you opened?
CS: When we first opened it was difficult because we always wanted to be keg orientated but it was really difficult to find independent (free of tie) keg lines. It was a very new concept for a lot of places. If you wanted to get into places the best way to get into places was cask, so we had to expand into producing that. We always drank cask but our plan was always to be keg orientated. So when we first started there was more cask involved [than we planned for.]
RM: We were sending a few pallets of kegs down to London not long after we started. However, we haven’t been able to send anything since we started because of how much better Birmingham is now. We don’t actually have enough beer to put on a pallet now, which is a great problem to have.
CS: We’re not moaning about it.
RM: That just shows the change. We went from having “ah, how are we gonna sell these beers if nowhere can actually take keg?” and then The Wolf (a popular Birmingham beer bar) opened down the road and loads of other places followed.
NP: Was that the turning point?
CS: There’s more independents for sure. Most of our beers are still mostly around Birmingham, because we wouldn’t ever sacrifice local places to send beer further afield. 95% of our beer has been drunk in Birmingham. Outside of Birmingham we’re relatively unknown.
RM: Plus its the best way. In your backyard you can constantly go and see that freshness. We know its gone straight from our cold room into their cellar.
CS: You know the customers as well, so there’s trust. You know they’re gonna care for the beer.
NP: Why do you think there’s not as many breweries in Birmingham as there are in other cities despite it being the second largest in the UK?
RM: It’s crazy. It's already starting to change in the last year or so. Give it a bit more time, it's definitely gonna come up.
CS: I think Birmingham and the Black Country has a lot of more traditional breweries, so I think there is a market but it’s very passionate about traditional beer.
NP: Do you feel like living in Birmingham and growing up here has influenced how you do business?
CS: We’ve definitely created the place we would come and drink. If someone else was doing this instead of us we would 100% be supportive of it.
RM: We wanted these cool places that every other city seemed to have. We wanted these breweries to exist and they just didn’t, so we were like, “maybe we should do it ourselves?” We started because we wanted Birmingham to have its own craft brewery.
CS: And there was a sense of pride being from Birmingham. When we went to the Bermondsey Beer Mile in London when Kernel had a taproom, we were walking round there thinking we want this, we love this, this is fucking wicked.
RM: Back then in Birmingham there was nothing like it. The closest thing to it before we started was Fixed Wheel. Going to their taproom hanging out there we thought, “this guy’s done it, this is cool, this what we want.”